My guest today, Col (Ret) Keith Nightingale, served in infantry, Ranger and Special Operations forces during his 29 year career in the Army. He served two tours in Vietnam, first, as an adviser to the 52nd Ranger Battalion during Tet and then as a rifle company commander in the 101st Airborne during 1970-71. His career spanned assignments with the 75th Ranger Battalion, the Iran Rescue Task Force, and an assault force commander in Grenada. He is retired and lives in California where he raises limes and kills gophers. This is the first of two posts that he has donated to this website.
Religions build churches, synagogues, mosques, and sanctuaries. Grunts form a perimeter which is a sanctuary for both the body and the spirit. The perimeter, the one and only refuge from the work at hand, is the place where a person gets in touch with himself, relaxes if he can, and recovers because he must. It is wherever the Infantry is. It both constantly changes and is totally immutable. It is a contradiction—a blessing and a curse.
The perimeter comes in many forms, but the function is always the same. For the Grunt, it is a relief against whatever is out there and the source of succor and recovered senses. It is as much a home as there can be—even if for just the smallest moment in time.
The perimeter is a small cluster of buildings with dirt packed walls, earth floors, and cracked tile roofs. It is a small triangle of men laid out behind their rucks—in both hot sand and deep rotten jungle. It is a collection of steel boxes, Texas barriers, Hester bags, and plywood walls. It is two troops in the wasteland, scared to their core and back to back prepared for whatever fate brings—together.
The perimeter may be as large as Bastogne, as isolated as Restropo, as symbolic as Khe Sanh or two Grunts temporarily lost and alone. It was the hundred plus positions held during Tet 1968 by small isolated elements cut off from their primary support. The perimeter says: Here we are. Here we stand. If you want it, you have to take it. We may be few, but we are together, and here we fight. We stand alone—together.
A perimeter is the one sanctuary that temporarily relieves the Grunt of some small portion of the anxiety carried during the operational day. Here, conversation may be in a normal tone. Hyper-vigilance is relaxed. The niceties of available food and drink are consumed almost like home—but not. Letters and email are written and read. Uniforms and skin simultaneously cool. Shoulders rest and recover their shape. Leaders become more obvious as the led recover into their societal pecking order free of the requirements of command. The perimeter is as close to “normal” as circumstances permit.
Weapons point outward. Dangers are assessed from a distance. The other tools of combat are placed in their desired positions. The instruments of the night are readied in the dwindling last light.
Soon a green caste illuminates all the world that can be seen within the various prisms. A furtive glance skyward reveals stars in an abundance not previously noted. Rest is an option. For some.
Within the temporary sanctuary, some are required to insure security. They extend their presence outside the small haven but remain part of the whole, albeit at a distance. In their mind, they know if bad things happen, they will return to their assembly, and that knowledge provides some emotional relief.
In dark circumstances, the perimeter is a hasty bastion of defense. Walls and barricades are erected. Weapons align in deadly design and minds focus on the external threats. Internally, the members are together for whatever fate may bring. Association provides additional strength—both physical and emotional.
In the worst of circumstances, the dead, dying, and incapacitated are gathered toward the innermost womb to be ministered to and supported by the surrogates for mothers and fathers that an Infantry family provides.
Under better circumstances, the perimeter is the locus for external support and assistance. Food, drink, and the various sundries of war are augmented. Home is momentarily provided in the way of letters, email, and other connections reminding the membership that someone outside the perimeter also cares.
Internal to the perimeter, the several levels of leadership more clearly assume their positions within the hierarchy. They are responsible for the health, safety, and future of the members surrounding them. This will not change until each member is freed from the physical perimeter in a different land. A land not here.
Each Grunt occupies the physical space and erects a personal emotional perimeter. This is the last refuge if the former begins to succumb. The emotional strength of the group and the internal bonding of allegiance provides a final quality to the perimeter in its darkest moments.
In time, the perimeter is dissolved as new requirements and movements dictate. The Grunts travel in a moving individual and collective perimeter among each other much as a shoal of fish—a perimeter that constantly changes but always remains the same. It preserves both the person and the force and is the strength and refuge of the unit.
I and many others are alive because a perimeter was in place. We cannot forget. Wars may change, but the perimeter is a constant. Do not forget what makes a perimeter.
A perimeter of five or 500, a NDP shoulder-to-shoulder, is perhaps the most concise and most defined piece of real estate to a soldier in the entire universe. Until it is abandoned or no longer necessary, the perimeter is the core of the soldier’s humanity. Every comrade therein is his brother and his family……none closer and more needed.
Well done! Thank you, sir, for your service and sacrifice! Welcome Home!
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